A crook collector
Of relics, books and bones.
Visiting Humphrey’s mansion—
Discovers Sam in ice.
Recovers from clutch of
“What?” I ask.
Annabel and I are sitting at an outdoor café in the main square in Orvieto, Italy. I’ve been staring in awe at the ornate entrance to the city’s cathedral while Annabel scribbles on the back of a napkin. “It’s a piem,” she says, as if that’s supposed to mean something to me.
“Don’t you mean a poem?”
“A piem is a poem written in Pilish.”
Annabel has told me about Pilish, so this gives me a clue. “You mean the language where the number of letters in each word matches the numbers of Pi?”
“Exactly.” Annabel puts on a wicked smile and goes on. “The language that Greg and I shared when we visited your mom in Canada.”
Annabel hasn’t stopped teasing me ever since we visited the dinosaur dig in Alberta. I’d gotten upset that this guy, who knew almost as much about the number Pi as she did, was hitting on her. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”
“I think it’s cute that you were jealous,” she says. Her smile broadens. “And a little bit dumb that you thought I would dump you for someone like Greg.”
“Okay,” I say. “Enough about him. Let’s see your piem.”
Annabel turns her napkin around so I can read what she’s written. I don’t know Pi to thousands of numbers like she does, but I’ve learned enough to know that the number of letters in the words of her piem are the same as the beginning of Pi—3.14159265358979323846264… “Very clever,” I agree, “but it just goes to show how weird you are.”
“But you’ve always known about my small obsession with Pi.”
“Two things,” I say. “One, it’s not a small obsession, and two, we’re sitting in the sun in Italy, across the square from a seven-hundred-year-old building that’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and you are doodling. And what’s this bit about me in ice?”
“Nothing personal. I needed a threeletter word. Don’t you think it’d be neat to visit one of Humphrey Battleford’s mansions and see some of the unique things he’s collected?”
“Stolen, you mean, but yes, it would be cool. However, I doubt that he’ll invite us any time soon.”
“Oh, I don’t know. He seems to like us. He even said he enjoys matching wits with us. He did set up that Arctic cruise so we would be a part of his scheme.”
“And we have outfoxed him so far,” I say, “but that doesn’t mean he won’t win if there’s ever a next time. He has unlimited money.”
“But we have brains,” Annabel points out with a smile. “Okay, I have most of them, but you do help a little bit.”
“Thanks very much,” I say. Then I point at the piem. “At least I’m smart enough to notice that you made a mistake. Battleford is one word.”
“Poetic license. I broke it up into six and four so it would work.” She looks up. “Here’s Mom and Dad.”
I can see Annabel’s parents winding their way between tour groups and pairs of scruffy backpackers. Even in the crowd, they stand out. For a start, Annabel’s dad, Jack, is even taller than she is, and towers above everyone. He’s wearing his usual uniform—hiking boots, khaki cargo pants and shirt covered in bulging pockets, and a wide-brimmed, beat-up bush hat. His long face is never clean-shaven, unruly tufts of red hair stick out from beneath his hat, and his piercing blue eyes are continually on the move, taking in every detail of the world and people around him.
In contrast, his wife, Pam, is at least a foot shorter and is always neatly dressed. Her honey-blond hair is stylishly cut, and she’s wearing a bright, flowery summer dress and carrying a new Italian-leather shoulder bag. She sees us, smiles, waves and heads over. Jack, gazing at the low sun painting the front of the cathedral a dramatic gold, stumbles into a busload of Japanese tourists.
“Hello, you two,” Pam says as she glides between the tables, kisses us both on the cheek and sits down. She loops her bag over the back of the chair and looks out onto the square. Jack is untangling himself from the tourists, who keep trying to take selfies with him. “I don’t know how he ever gets anywhere.” Pam shakes her head and catches the attention of a waiter. As Jack finally stumbles to our table and slumps into a chair, Pam orders two coffees and two more colas for Annabel and me.
“Do anything exciting today?” Jack asks.
Annabel immediately starts telling him about the buildings and art we’ve seen. Jack, who teaches history, chips in with facts and questions. When they begin to discuss which sculptures on the front of the cathedral were done by the fourteenth-century architect Lorenzo Maitani, Pam and I look at each other and raise our eyebrows. This has happened before.
“So, Sam,” Pam says, “I think Maitani’s very overrated. Don’t you agree?”
“No. I think he’s easily the best central defender the Italian soccer team’s ever had.”
Pam laughs out loud, Jack almost chokes on his coffee, and Annabel punches me on the arm.
“But seriously, Sam,” Pam says. “What was your best part of today?”
“The caves and tunnels,” I reply instantly. “The entire hill this town is built on is honeycombed with thousands of rooms and tunnels. Most are just wine and food storerooms under houses, but some of the tunnels and wells date back to the Etruscans thousands of years ago—even before the Roman empire.”
“He kept wandering off,” Annabel says. “The poor guide had to keep calling him back.”
“It would be embarrassing,” Pam says, “if we had to tell your parents that we’d lost you in a tunnel.”
“But there must be tunnels under here that haven’t been explored for centuries—maybe rooms filled with gold and silver,” I say.
“I doubt it,” Jack says. “People have been digging in the soft volcanic rock under this town for hundreds of years. It’s very unlikely that you’ll find any long-lost treasure.” He winks at me.
I must look disappointed, because Jack quickly adds, “But there are lots of hill towns around here that are built on the same rock. I’m sure there are still things to be found. Are you still planning on going to Bagnoregio tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Annabel replies. “The buses are pretty good, so I think we’ll set off early. Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
“We’d love to,” Pam replies, “but Jack still has some research in the archives, and I have to do some shopping for gifts to take home before we head back to Rome. So you two go off and have fun, and we’ll meet up for a nice dinner tomorrow evening.”
“Are there tunnels under Bagnoregio?” I ask.
“Yes,” Jack says. “It’s built on the same soft rock as Orvieto. But you’ll need to be quick if you want to discover anything.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“The rock’s so soft that the hill the old town is built on is eroding. Every year it gets smaller as pieces slide into the surrounding valleys. Most of the population moved into the new town more than three hundred years ago.”
“Cheap place to buy property,” I suggest.
“Perhaps,” Jack agrees, “but not a solid long-term investment.”